Someone commented on my mini-rant that the words “itch” and “impact” are not verbs. The reader seemed to suggest that the appearance of these words in “a dictionary” as verbs is a viable argument for them being accepted that way. My reply:

There are many words in “the dictionary” that are not words. You cannot use the fact that hundreds of thousands of people use a word incorrectly as evidence that they are using it correctly. This is a tautology. It is tantamount to saying, “There are hundreds of thousands of murders each year, so we should just accept murder as law.”

Yes, impact likely appears in dictionaries as a verb today. (It didn’t always.) And using it as a verb only displays to those of us with a respect for language and law that a person has a limited vocabulary. One last thing: An itch is a thing. To scratch an itch is to do something. To itch an itch makes no sense. Again, it just shows that the person saying it has a very poor vocabulary (or, alternatively, is extremely lazy … splitting hairs, I know …). It is true that there are a slew of words which are appropriately nouns and verbs. Hammer is a good example. You hammer a nail with a hammer. A knock is another good one. When you knock on a door you are producing a knock. Itch and scratch are not the same, though. You cannot itch an itch. A person saying that sounds about as intelligent as a person saying, “I’m hungry. Let’s go food,” or, “Can you car me to the airport?” So. While I have to admit that you are correct – itch and impact appear in the dictionary as verbs – the point of the entry on which you commented is that no self-respecting writer (or speaker) of English would use them as such.

There are 19 comments on this post

  1. David,

    A short while back you also wrote about comma misusage. I must finally say my peace.

    The English language, indeed all languages, are not static but fluid. The rules of language differ from the laws of mathematics in that they are capable of evolving to better function and serve the changing elements of contemporary communication. New words come into being, old words acquire new meanings, and archaic terms fall to the wayside etc…. We can read Shakespeare today and see the beauty of his prose although we certainly no longer write or speak in that manner.

    Accept it David, there are no constants when it comes to language. Case in point: every year the OED accepts/changes the definitions of new slang/jargon such as your very own “blog.” If you doubt me, visit Earth in five hundred years and see if all your steadfast rules are still just as they are today.

    I do understand and respect your point that ignorance should not be tolerated, but it does seem that you believe in LAWS not rules. Where is there room for the expression of individuality in such a world? No room for artistic license…. How many great writers have bent or broken the rules and moved us by doing so?

    On a side note, I really do enjoy your insights as well as your site.

    All the best,


  2. I know that sometimes I can seem a bit totalitarian, but in the end I agree with you completely. I am madly in lust with artistic license; it’s just ignorance that drives me batty.

  3. I’m all for the progress of the English language, but you cannot break the “laws” of English until you *understand* the laws you break. Artistic license is not the same as ignorange.

    However, gradual changes in language are historically influenced the most by the uneducated, lower classes of a society who don’t know any better (or by one society invading another). :> … So we can’t be surprised to realize the same is happening to the English we are familiar with.

  4. Preach it, Brother David!

  5. BRAVO!!!!

    And, while you’re at it, how about an exhortation about the verb “to be”?

    I remember a horrific case of apoplexy when one of my employees handed me a document across the front page of which she had written, “this needs fixed…”! “The bed needs made.” “The dog needs fed.” AAARRRGGGHHH! Can you imagine English without the verb “to be”?

    “Much” is also disappearing fast. “This is so fun,” they say, with emphasis on the “so.”

    Languages change constantly. Sometimes it hurts…

  6. This comment is for eric –

    Most of what you said was thoughtful and very well written, but, if you ever want to comment on someone else’s work in the future, the correct term is, “I have to say my piece.”

    I didn’t know how to get this message to you alone, and I don’t mean it as an insult, but the idiom makes no sense with the word, “peace.” It means to verbally contribute a piece of information.

    Just for future reference…

    professional author, editor, proofreader (pre-spellcheck)

  7. Hmmm … I had thought that it was a reference to “making the peace” or “keeping the peace”; something like that. I probably would have used peace instead of piece, too. ***thinking***

  8. I must confess that you have me there Kathie. The small particle of brain between my ears was thinking, “I need to say this for my own peace of mind.” And so the thought I put on the page contained said error. As I’m sure you know, it can be difficult sometimes to catch your own mistakes, as the eyes tend to see what the brain thought it said. At least, that is the case with me. Thanks for your correction as well as your kind words. Have a great day,

  9. “I’m hungry. Let’s go food.” That is the best thing I’ve ever heard. Mental note: use more often.

  10. – itch is a verb. Very clearly listed in Merriam Webster as a verb. “I itch.” is a correct sentence, with itch being the verb and I as the subject. – impact is also a verb. Has been, it appears, since 1601. Both of these are verbs in the intransitive sense, maybe that is what caused the confusion?

  11. Part 2: “I itch all over.” Again, itch is the verb describing my state of being. I is the subject. All over decribes where my itch is occurring. And normally, if the dictionary says it is a verb, I can therefore use it as a verb. I have issues with the dictionary listing things as “slang” and people using it as a defense – “ain’t” is incorrect, no matter how you slice it, and being in the dictionary doesn’t make a difference at all. And “I’m fixing to…” is a Southern thing that gets on my last nerve. “I’m fixing to go to the store.” Fix is a verb – when you fix your car. But “fixing to…” is ALL wrong. (There you have it, my pet peeve.)

  12. “Fixin’ to” might could be a pet peeve of mine too, if “might could” weren’t already it.

  13. I just happened to come upon this old post and I don’t know if anyone will even read this comment. However, I thought I’d briefly comment, since I’ve been looking into this matter (I’m an editor, so I’ve got my reasons).

    The problem is, when one starts really looking into this, one finds that there’s really no firm historical ground from which to self-righteously condemn the use of “impact” as a verb. It’s been used as a verb since 1600 and in the modern figurative sense since 1935. It’s widely accepted in dictionaries, and you can go ahead and say dictionaries don’t count, but it’s unclear what other basis you have for calling it wrong except “common knowledge.” One can say one doesn’t like it, of course, but there’s just not much ground to stand on to actually call it incorrect.

    I think we just hate the way it’s overused in business and politics, and we’ve heard it’s wrong ’cause lots of language snobs seem to think it is, and it’s a way of us lowly editor and writer types to hold something over the (often richer but stupider) business and politics types. Problem is, I don’t like going around telling people they’re wrong when I have such a flimsy basis for doing so. So I can’t get on board this train. Sorry.

  14. Sean,
    I have long ago abandoned tilting at that particular windmill. The impact of people impacting me with that word as a verb so often in the workplace has numbed me to it. I no longer care. I ain’t gonna bitch about it no more.

  15. How do we determine what words mean, if not by how they are used? We can’t just go by your opinion.

  16. John,
    It’s not “my opinion” that the word itch is not a verb. An itch is a thing. The word scratch is a verb. You scratch an itch. You don’t itch an itch.

    This isn’t really up for discussion.

  17. I should make it clear that I only mean to say that itch is not a verb when you are describing the act of scratching. Yes, you can say, “I itch.” You can also say, “These bites are making me itch.”

    You cannot say, “I am itching these mosquito bites.”

    Well, you can say that. I’ll just think you’re an idiot.

  18. Sure it’s up for discussion. All the people who use “itch” transitively would disagree with you. I’m not one of those people, but I know it is used that way because it is in the American Heritage Dictionary. “itch” is used transitively to mean “to scratch” whether you like it or not.

    And “impact” has been used as a verb since at least 1601.

    You don’t have to use them, but it seems completely bizarre to say that they’re not words.

  19. I really think you’ve painted yourself in a corner by saying that dictionaries are wrong. Meaning is derived from consensus. Dictionaries describe usage. Lexicographers look at how words are used, and determine their meaning from how they are used. What is the problem with looking at the facts?

    In any other field, scientific enquiry is respected. But when lexicographers and linguists use actual evidence of actual usage to define a word, the response from prescriptivists is simply “no, you’re wrong, the facts are irrelevant.”

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